Livability: Stories

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I’d Rather Be a Lightning Rod: On Ken Kesey, Life, and the Landscapes of the Pacific Northwest

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I have been living in a room in a house perched on a cliff that overlooks the Oregon coast for almost a month. A window with an ocean view spans the width of my desk, but when I sit down to write, I often find myself doing anything but that. I stare at the sea and the rolling clouds, or follow the beachcombers, the joggers, the surfers, and the fishing vessels further out with the binoculars my aunt uses to spot whales in the winter. The setting is striking to the point of distraction for this city dweller accustomed to skylines punctuated by skyscrapers, to glimpses of rivers from the Manhattan Bridge, to lawns circumscribed by park walls.

In Newport, Oregon, nature dominates. The only depiction of this town I’ve encountered beyond a travel guide is in Jon Raymond’s story “The Coast” from his collection, Livability. Raymond’s eye is attuned to the landscape of the Pacific Northwest. In his story, he describes the coastline in quadrants and colors as if he’s painting: “The wind was blustery and the sky was all over the place–dark in one quadrant and pale blue in another, with splashes of magenta, orange, and streaks of hot pink in the lower regions. The billowing cumulus clouds gliding over the ocean were like slow-moving buildings of water and air. I skirted the edge of the tide, avoiding heaps of bullwhip kelp and seagull carcasses and blobs of broken jellyfish.” The sea, the wind, and labile sky capture the tableau precisely.

The first few days after I arrived, I found myself spouting dumbfounded phrases such as, “The clouds! The mountains! Like a painting!” as if I were severely nature deprived. I’m sure I sounded like the equivalent of a yokel visiting the city, jaw dropping at the sight of yellow taxi-filled roads and towering buildings–just like the movies! I am smitten with the sea lions, the sand dunes, the washed up bivalves and cracked crab shells that litter the beach. The open skies have cleared the smog in my mind. The landscape works its way into my stories and it infuses my essays (as you can see).

It’s difficult not to notice the differences here, and not respond to the surroundings. When I was at the local library, a man found a pocket knife on the floor and turned it in to the lost and found. Hitchhikers walk backward along the coastal highway, carrying sleeping bags nestled atop oversize backpacks. More abundant and less haggard than the east coast variety, they make me think of ranch hand and expert hitchhiker Sissy Hankshaw and her magnificent thumbs, straight out of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. The fluorescent red and green sea anemones in the tide pools mimic the Day-Glo hues made popular by the Merry Pranksters, so it’s fitting that head Prankster Ken Kesey grew up in Oregon, just outside of Eugene.

I took up with Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test out of curiosity about Kesey, his writing, and his influence on the sixties West Coast acid scene. Wolfe emphasizes Kesey’s tremendous physicality and soft country drawl, which owe much to his upbringing in Oregon’s outdoors. Kesey’s father “had started him and his younger brother … shooting and fishing and swimming as early as they could in any way manage it, also boxing, running, wrestling, plunging down the rapids of the Williamette and the McKenzie Rivers, on inner-tube rafts, with lots of rocks and water and sartin’ death foamin’ down below.”  He came off as a country boy, but when he moved to San Francisco as a Stegner fellow, his physical prowess and charisma made him popular with the bohemian literary set.

The Northwestern terrain also infused Kesey’s fiction. His second novel, Sometimes a Great Notion, is set in a logging town near the Oregon coast where a family of loggers break from the unionized strikers by supplying lumber to a local mill. Kesey researched the book while living in Florence, a coastal town just south of Newport. He lived the logging life, in a way. By day he rode in the pick-up trucks that bussed loggers to and from their camps and by night he hung out at the loggers’ watering holes. The novel opens already anchored in the landscape, the pages suffused by passages describing the contours of the land:  “ Along the western slopes of the Oregon Coastal Range … come look: the hysterical crashing of tributaries as they merge into the Wakonda Auga River … ”

After Kesey wrote the novel, his artistic focus shifted from writing to life. He devoted himself to living in the moment, to making experimental movies and bringing fantasies to life, to reaching higher states of awareness tripping on LSD.  “I’d rather be a lightning rod than a seismograph,” was Kesey’s reason for quitting writing. Wolfe adds, “He talked about something called the Acid Test and forms of expression in which there would be no separation between himself and the audience. It would be all one experience, with all the senses opened wide, words music, lights, sounds, touch–lightning–” Even Kesey’s metaphors reference the outdoors–acting as a conduit for electricity rather than recording the earth’s movements with ink.

A Harvard undergrad on the staff of the campus literary magazine in 1970 spoke to The New York Times about her extracurricular reading habits and the irresistible appeal of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. She said, “Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Air [sic] Acid Test really gets to some of us. I had to stop reading it half way through because I never would have gotten my work done. I wanted to freak out on acid, and like Ken Kesey take a bus onto the road and just live!”

How does one get work done when it becomes obvious there are fantasies to enact, road trips to take, rules to flout? How does one write when nature, and life, beckon from beyond the window? Put the book down. Close the blinds. Or don’t. There’s a delicate balance to strike. Even Kesey, magnificent lightening rod that he was, wrote more books after the acid tests ended. And without Tom Wolfe’s assemblage of interviews and documentation of the Pranskters’ escapades in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, I would know far less about Kesey, his medium, and his life. I know I will soon pack my bags and go home. But I am lucky to have witnessed the landscape, and to know there is the possibility of return.

[Image credit: Anne Yoder]

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